With singular force and precision, Ellen Bryant Voigt explores relationships between human character and human destiny in meticulously crafted, quietly potent poems that move through autobiography, pastoral, and history. She is known for an exacting and luminous intelligence, and for poems infused with evocative natural imagery and syntactical genius. Consummate in both the narrative and the lyric modes, Voigt reveals the complexity of our interior lives as she confronts beauty, terror and mortality. Her Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters citation reads: “With stoic commitment to meaning, and with immense technical resources, Ellen Bryant Voigt has fashioned an art of passionate gravity and opulent music, an art at once ravishing and stern and deeply human.”
Born and raised on a farm in Virginia, Voigt revealed an aptitude for music at an early age when she began playing the piano. She attended Converse College for its music conservatory but turned to poetry after discovering the work of e.e. cummings and Rilke, and went on to earn an MFA from the University of Iowa. She has said that music influences her writing “entirely,” and that poetry “does its work through music, which then allows for exploration of complicated and therefore accurate feelings.”
Voigt is the author of eight highly acclaimed collections of poetry. Edward Hirsch wrote of her early book, Claiming Kin (1976), that it demonstrated “a Southerner’s devotion to family and a naturalist’s devotion to the physical world.” Subsequent books include The Lotus Flowers (1987); Two Trees (1992); Kyrie a cycle of sonnets about the great Flu Pandemic of 1918, and finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award (1995); and Shadow of Heaven. This reading coincides with and celebrates the release of Headwaters, a brand new collection that features what Philip Levine has called “her unerring craft,” in both familiar and very new ways. Voigt dispenses with punctuation, making brilliant use of run-together natural phrasing and enjambment to establish pace, tone, and urgency, still keeping to her stated goal of creating poems that are resonant, complex, and clear.
In addition, she has published two books on craft, The Flexible Lyric and The Art of Syntax, and edited Hammer and Blaze: A Gathering of Contemporary American Poets (with Heather McHugh, 2002) and Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World (with Gregory Orr, 1996). Voigt’s many honors include the Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s O. B. Hardison, Jr. Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. In 1976, she developed and founded the nation’s first low-residency writing program at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont—a design for graduate MFA study that has since been emulated across the nation. Since 1981 she has taught in the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College. Voigt served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and State Poet of Vermont, where she has lived for many years.
Poetry Center Reading:
The Last Class
Put this in your notebooks:
All verse is occasional verse.
In March, trying to get home, distracted
and impatient at Gate 5 in the Greyhound station,
I saw a drunk man bothering a woman.
A poem depends on its detail
but the woman had her back to me,
and the man was just another drunk,
black in this case, familiar, dirty.
I moved past them both, got on the bus.
There is no further action to report.
The man is not a symbol. If what he said to her
touches us, we are touched by a narrative
we supply. What he said was, “I’m sorry,
I’m sorry,” over and over, “I’m sorry,”
but you must understand he frightened the woman,
he meant to rob her of those few quiet
solitary moments sitting down,
waiting for the bus, before she headed home
and probably got supper for her family,
perhaps in a room in Framingham,
perhaps her child was sick.
My bus pulled out, made its usual turns
And parted the formal gardens from the Common,
both of them camouflaged by snow.
And as it threaded its way to open road,
leaving the city, leaving our sullen classroom,
I postponed my satchel of your poems
and wondered who I am to teach the young,
having come so far from honest love of the world;
I tried to recall how it felt
to live without grief; and then I wrote down
a few tentative lines about the drunk,
because of an old compulsion to record,
or sudden resolve not to be self-absorbed
and full of dread-
I wanted to salvage
something from my life, to fix
some truth beyond all change, the way
photographers of war, miles from the front,
lift print after print into the light,
each one further cropped and amplified,
pruning whatever baffles or obscures,
until the small figures are restored
as young men sleeping.
From THE LOTUS FLOWERS (W.W. Norton, 1987)
The winter field is not
the field of summer lost in snow: it is
another thing, a different thing.
“We shouted, we shook you,” you tell me,
but there was no sound, no face, no fear, only
oblivion-why shouldn’t it be so?
After they’d pierced a vein and fished me up,
after they’d reeled me back they packed me under
blanket on top of blanket, I trembled so.
The summer field, sun-fed, mutable,
has its many tasks; the winter field
becomes its adjective.
For those hours
I was some other thing, and my body,
which you have long loved well,
did not love you.
From SHADOW OF HEAVEN (W.W. Norton, 2002)
I made a large mistake I left my house I went into the world it was not
the most perilous hostile part but I couldn’t tell among the people there
who needed what no tracks in the snow no boot pointed toward me or away
no snow as in my dooryard only the many currents of self-doubt I clung
to my own life raft I had room on it for only me you’re not surprised
it grew smaller and smaller or maybe I grew larger and heavier
but don’t you think I’m doing better in this regard I try to do better
From HEADWATERS (W.W. Norton, 2013)
To weep unbidden, to wake
at night in order to weep, to wait
for the whisker on the face of the clock
to twitch again, moving
the dumb day forward—
is this merely practice?
Some believe in heaven,
some in rest. We’ll float,
you said. Afterward
we’ll float between two worlds—
five bronze beetles
stacked like spoons in one
peony blossom, drugged by lust:
if I came back as a bird
I’d remember that—
until everyone we love
is safe is what you said.
From SHADOW OF HEAVEN (W.W. Norton, 2002)
Available as a Broadside